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In the Bleadk Midwinter...Joy

In the Bleak Midwinter…Joy

In the first two of this year’s Advent messages, we have thought about problems the people of God faced right before Jesus was born.
To refresh our memories, they faced the political problem of not being free. They were at that time dominated by Rome. The economic problem of so many lacking the money needed to live comfortably and still having to pay both Roman and Temple taxes. The cultural problem resulting from so many people living very mundane day-to-day lives, many of them in small villages that had poor housing. The educational problem of non-Jewish influences that had to be fought against, including what to teach their children and where. The religious problem of their own leaders demanding they learn and obey the thousands of rules and regulations those leaders had developed to try to explain what they thought God meant by His Old Testament teachings.

At the time of Jesus - shortly before His birth - life was very difficult for the people of God. A difficulty that caused them to cry out for a Savior to rescue them. A Savior who could be described as Emmanuel, meaning God with us, as Dayspring, meaning He would bring new hope, as Wisdom, meaning He would be honest and hard-working to accomplish salvation, as Desire of nations, meaning He would be attractive to all who would accept Him when He came.

About 2000 years ago, the crying out of God’s people was answered. About 2000 years ago, the Savior from the problems faced - the Savior from the sins that were at the root of many of the problems - came. He came as a baby, who was named Jesus.

As mentioned last week, Jesus’ coming - His birth - should have changed the world. The change should have happened immediately. The change should have been permanent. From the moment of the arrival of the Savior - from the moment of the coming of Jesus - from the moment of His birth - things should have been and should have remained absolutely perfect in absolutely every way.

Unfortunately, that did not happen. It did not happen, even at His birth. Let’s think about that this morning, both Biblically and musically.

We are, in each of this year’s Advent messages, thinking about some Christmas songs. Some are happy, as will be the case with today’s second song. Others are sad, as is the first one for today. A song titled In the Bleak Midwinter. A song that will be considered as we also look at what the Bible says about the birth of Jesus.

For the Biblical account, let’s consider the first part of Luke 2, where we are told what got Jesus’ mother Mary, along with Joseph, to Jesus’ birthplace, which was Bethlehem.

Luke 2, beginning with verse 1. In those days - the days a bit before Jesus was born - a decree went out from Caesar Augustus. He was the Roman ruler at that time. Palestine was under the control of Caesar Augustus at that time in history. A decree went out from the Roman ruler that all the world should be enrolled.

I have read a few explanations for the enrollment that was decreed by Caesar Augustus.

One idea is that the purpose was to find men who should be serving in the Roman army.

Another idea is that the purpose was taxation. If that was the case, the Roman government wanted to know where everyone was, which would have made it more difficult for anyone to somehow slip through the taxation system.

Yet another idea is that Caesar Augustus was vain. That he wanted to be able to brag about how many people he ruled. What better way to find out how many people he ruled than to have an enrollment, during which his subjects could be counted.

It could have had military or taxation purposes. It could have been vanity. It could have been a combination of all three. But the ruler of Rome issued a decree that everyone throughout the empire he ruled be enrolled. So it was that all - that all the men in the empire - went to what were their ancestral homes.

So it was that Joseph, the man betrothed to Mary, went from Nazareth, where he lived. Where Mary lived. He went from Nazareth in the northern Palestinian province of Galilee to Judea in the southern province. He went to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem. That is where Joseph went because he was of the house and lineage of David.

As mentioned, the enrollment was required of men who lived in the Roman Empire. It is my understanding women were not required to be enrolled. That no doubt had something to do with women’s societal standing at that time. They were not considered to be as important as men.

But Joseph did not travel alone. Mary went with him from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Why did Mary go? Well, I think it might have been because of problems she was having in Nazareth. Problems she very likely had with her own family.

Remember Mary was not yet married to Joseph. She had not been married when she conceived. Wen the fact she was with child was noticed, I think Mary probably lived very harshly, as in being rejected by her family and by her friends. Rejection that included probably some very nasty things being said about her morals.

Mary had not been immoral. We know that. But her family and her friends no doubt reacted very negatively to Mary’s pregnancy. Maybe the only friend she had was Joseph. So it was that when he had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Mary went with him. A journey, straight line, of 70-some miles. Making crooks and turns, maybe 90 or so miles.

By the way, an Old Testament prophecy had predicted the Savior would be born in Bethlehem. So the rejection Mary faced in Nazareth turned out to be a good thing spiritually. It was that that led Mary to deciding to go with Joseph to Bethlehem.

The journey could not have been easy for Mary. She was very pregnant at the time. But she and Joseph eventually arrived at their destination. There they faced the problem of having nowhere to stay, that caused by lots of other people being in Bethlehem at that same time to also be enrolled.

I assume from the way I read the passage that Bethlehem had just one inn. It was already full when Joseph and Mary arrived. However, the inn keeper did allow them to stay in the barn beside the inn.

It was in that barn - it was in a barn - that Jesus - remember His descriptions as Savior, Emmanuel, Dayspring, Wisdom, Desire of nations - it was in a barn that Jesus was born. Born in a barn alone with just Mary and Joseph. Maybe a few others were there who might have also been given the barn as lodging, and d of course some animals were there. But no heads of state. No dignitaries. No religious leaders. All of whom should have greeted the Savior. Just a lonely couple in a lonely barn in a lonely little town were there when Jesus was born.

Which is what the first of this message’s Christmas songs reminds us about. The song In the Bleak Midwinter.

In the bleak midwinter. Isn’t that an apt description of the scene surrounding Jesus’ birth? Frosty wind moaning. The earth as hard as iron. Water like a stone.

It occurs to me that such weather conditions were probably not the case in Bethlehem the night Jesus was born. I looked online and discovered the average high temperature in December in Jerusalem, just a few miles from Bethlehem, is 50 degrees. The average low is 43 degrees. So it does not get that cold there.

But socially? It definitely had been frosty for Mary in Nazareth. Being alone in Bethlehem, the earth was hard for her and for Joseph. And no, maybe not physical snow was felt by them, but it was bleak spiritually the mid-winter Jesus was born long ago.

Verse 2 of the song. What wonderful messages. Jesus is God - God Almighty. He is Christ,meaning He was anointed - anointed by God - to be the Master. Heaven could not hold Him, not because of any weakness of Heaven, but because He chose to come to us. Earth could sustain Him, except so many people would not accept Him, which led to His crucifixion.

Jesus will return. But on the night of His birth, a stable sufficed. That is where He was born

Which was - verse 3 - enough for Him. Which is amazing considering He was used to being worshiped night and day by angels. But on the night of His birth, He received nourishment from His mother. His bed was a simple manger, filled with hay. His attendants were not angels, but animals.

Verse 4. There were angels around that night, but physically - humanly - the only one who at first worshiped Him that night was His mother, who worshiped Him with a kiss.

What an important question is in verse 5. What can I give Him, poor as I am? Poor as we all are compared to Jesus. If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet what I can give, I do give Him. I give Him my heart

We have another song to consider in this message. A song of great joy. To get ready for that, please make sure you have given Jesus your heart. If you have not, do so, even now. Do that so we can, as we consider today’s second song, join together in great joy.

* * * * *

Two thousand years ago, conditions were bad. That caused the people of God to cry out for a Savior. A Savior who came.

The Savior was greeted with a lack of fanfare. He was greeted in very bleak ways. But He did come. Which, shortly after His birth, was announced to some shepherds in a field near where Jesus was born. An event told about in today’s happy Christmas song, which is How Great Our Joy.

Let’s consider the report of that event as it is told in the song. Last week we also considered the shepherds. Today’s song is another way of telling about them. Let’s consider the report about the shepherds, bringing in some of the Biblical report as well, which is found in Luke 2:8-20.

While by the sheep we watched at night. that is what the shepherds were doing that night. Theirs was a tedious, tiresome, boring, lonely job, but there the shepherds were, loyal to their responsibilities to care for their sheep.

While by the sheep we - the shepherds - watched at night, suddenly glad tidings were brought by an angel bright.

What were the tidings? They were tiding of joy. Great joy. Joy that, according to Luke 2, centered on the good news that a Savior had just been born. A Savior who had come for all people.

Because of that joy, the angel praised God. But according to Luke, not just that angel praised God. He was joined by a multitude of the Heaven host. All of Heaven sang praise to the Lord in Heaven on high.

The angel sung about in the song - the angel told about in Luke 2 - announced Jesus’ birth. But he had more to say. He went on to explain how the shepherds could find Jesus. Verse 2 of the song. The Savior who had just been born was in Bethlehem, the little town near where the shepherds were. Again according to the song, the Savior was cause for joy. Great joy. The Savior coming was worthy of praise.

Verse 3. In Bethlehem, the child - the new-born Savior - was in a stall. What a humble beginning for the one who had come to redeem us all, But yet again, according to the song, how great our joy. How great our joy. Joy multiplied. Which is reason to praise the Lord in Heaven on high.

Verses 1 through 3 of the song remind us that Jesus was born very humbly, but that He is the one who did come to redeem mankind. The first three verses remind us that Jesus’ coming is to be - it should be - greeted with joy and praise.

But you know what? What should happen and what does happen are not always the same. S it is that the shepherds who received the message from the angel - the shepherds who heard the multitude of the Heavenly host - could, after saying to each other, “Wow, that was exciting,” have just gone back to the herding of their sheep. They could have chosen to not be affected by what they had heard about a redeemer just being born. Born just a short distance away.

Wonderfully, the shepherds chose differently. Instead of ignoring or forgetting what had been announced, they - this is in Luke 2 - said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord [which God] has made known to us.”

Isn’t that interesting? Though it was an angel who had made the announcement - though it was other angels who also sang praise to God - the shepherds knew the message was from God Himself. That was probably because a bright light shone from Heaven as the angel spoke and as the choir sang, but they knew God had given them a message.

A message they were willing to pursue, which led them to leave their sheep and go to Bethlehem, which they had been told is where the Savior had been born. They knew to look for a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. They had also been told that. With that information, they were soon able to find Jesus.

There in the barn - in a cave actually - the shepherds told what they had heard about Jesus. About Him being the Savior, the Christ, the Lord. That Him being those things was good news of great joy for all people.

The shepherds told what they had heard about Jesus. They told Mary and Joseph, and anyone else who happened to be in the barn that night.

They then returned to their sheep. But they did not go back quietly. As I picture it, they did not go directly back to the field where they had been. They went here and there on their way back, searching for people. Going out of their way to find people to excitedly talk to about a number of things - about glorifying God, about praising God, about everything they had heard and seen, all of it involving Jesus.

Talking represented in verse 4 of today’s second song. This gift of God - Jesus - they promised to cherish well. They promised to do that because they wanted joy to fill their hearts. They wanted joy forever. So it was that not only the angel of God and the host of Heaven sang. So, too, did the shepherds sing. As they returned to their field, they sang, how great our joy. How great our joy. Joy that is multiplied. It was multiplied as they praised the Lord in Heaven on high.

* * * * *

As we have discussed throughout this year’s Advent messages, conditions at the time of Jesus’ birth were difficult. They were difficult politically, economically, culturally, educationally, religiously. As we discussed last week, conditions at other times in history have been difficult as well. As we know, life now can be difficult.

As today’s first Christmas song reminds us, life felt like a bleak midwinter when Jesus was born. It can feel that way now. But Jesus - Savior, Emmanuel, Dayspring, Wisdom - was born. He was born to be the Redeemer, which should be the desire of all nations.

That is cause for joy, even in the midst of problems. That is reason to praise God, even in the midst of problems.

Will we be like the shepherds and express our joy as we praise God? Will we be like the shepherds and do that, not only to ourselves, but to others? Let’s do that.

In fact, let’s practice doing that as we sing How Great Our Joy.

While by the sheep we watched at night,
Glad tidings brought an angel bright.
How great our joy! Great our joy!
Joy, joy, joy! Joy, joy, joy!
Praise we the Lord in Heaven on high!
Praise we the Lord in Heaven on high!

There shall be born, so he did say,
In Bethlehem a Child today.
How great our joy! Great our joy!
Joy, joy, joy! Joy, joy, joy!
Praise we the Lord in Heaven on high!
Praise we the Lord in Heaven on high!

There shall the Child lie in a stall,
This Child who shall redeem us all.
How great our joy! Great our joy!
Joy, joy, joy! Joy, joy, joy!
Praise we the Lord in Heaven on high!
Praise we the Lord in Heaven on high!

This gift of God we’ll cherish well,
That ever joy our hearts shall fill.
How great our joy! Great our joy!
Joy, joy, joy! Joy, joy, joy!
Praise we the Lord in Heaven on high!
Praise we the Lord in Heaven on high!

On Christmas night, Jesus was born.

Not too many people took notice of it. Bt an angel announced it. A multitude of the Heavenly host sang about it. That led to some shepherds going to see the new-born Savior. After which they, too, praised God as they expressed their joy.

Remember the Advent theme for today, which is to rejoice in the gift that God is still at work among His people. That night, God was at work among His people. For instance, Mary and Joseph who saw His birth, and the shepherds who celebrated His birth.

God has also been at work throughout history, bringing spiritual peace to those who would and will accept Jesus as the Savior He came to be.

Us? May we celebrate the gift that God is still at work, now among us. May we be like the shepherds. May we worship Jesus and tell others about Him, doing so excitedly.

Let’s pray - Lord, even today there are people all around who do not take notice of You. That is of course sad because without You, people will remain in a bleak mid-winter spiritually

But we do not have to be affected by that. We can rise above it. We can do that by accepting You, by worshiping You, by telling others about You. Help us to do all that. To do all that with joy and with praise.

Merry Christmas, Jesus. Thank You for coming. Amen.

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